Autistic Savant

Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.

The autistic savant is one of the most fascinating cognitive phenomena in psychology. “Autistic savant” refers to individuals with autism who have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons.

The estimated prevalence of savant abilities in autism is 10%, whereas the prevalence in the non-autistic population, including those with mental retardation, is less than 1%.

There are many forms of savant abilities. The most common forms involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities. A mathematical ability which many autistic individuals display is calendar memory. They could be asked a question like: ‘What day of the week was May 22, 1961? and they can determine the answer within seconds–Monday. Others can multiply and divide large numbers in their head and can also calculate square roots and prime numbers without much hesitation.

Examples of some memory feats include: remembering everything about Presidents (birth/death, term in office, names and birth dates of family members, cabinet members, etc.), memorizing the U.S. highway system, and remembering everyone’s birth date, even after meeting the person once and not seeing him/her for 20 years.

Some autistic individuals with savant abilities are incredible artists. Music is another common savant ability. Many performers with autism have perfect pitch and also have a great memory for music. In some cases, a person can hear a classical piece once and play it back in its entirety.

The movie Rain Man exposed millions of people to autism as well as the autistic savant phenomenon. In the movie, Raymond displayed a great memory for ball player statistics, memorized parts of the telephone book, and counted cards in Las Vegas.

The reason why some autistic individuals have savant abilities is not known. There are many theories, but there is no evidence to confirm any of them.

In most autistic savants a single special skill exists; in others multiple skills occur. The skills tend to be right hemisphere in type — nonsymbolic, concrete, directly perceived — in contrast to left hemisphere type that tend to be more sequential, logical and symbolic including language specialization. Imaging studies such as CT, MRI or PET have been carried out, savants, and particularly autistic savants, do demonstrate left hemisphere damage, with presumably, right hemisphere compensatory function. But points to the extraordinary gifts and potentials of the yet unexplored right brain.

Related Pages:
Genius-Right Brain
Right Brain Children

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